Although content marketing is a widespread practice across industries and company sizes, B2B marketers recognize the need to improve the effectiveness of their efforts, according to new MarketingProfs research of B2B marketers.

Likely because of that shortcoming, B2B marketers also have confidence in future return on investment (ROI) from their content-marketing efforts.

Our analysis of the survey data reveals a dozen recommendations about how to create relevant content and how to use content for greater sales impact.

How to Create Relevant Content

1. Identify fertile sources of content throughout your organization

Step out of the Marketing silo to search for experts with a voice and insight. Often, Product Development and Product Management are two good places to look for people who can offer thought leadership and have a point of view and an engaging personality.

2. Listen for the "pain points" and interests of your prospects and customers

The content you create must be relevant to the needs of your target audience. That means it must be about them, not about you. This idea can be difficult to remember when we are focused on boosting demand for our products and services; however, buyers usually have many, often indistinguishable, choices and will choose to do business with the company that they think understands their needs best.

3. Develop different content to appeal to different types of decision makers, purchase influencers, and opinion leaders

The decision to buy your products and services is usually made by more than one person. And don't forget the importance of word-of-mouth and referrals. Content that speaks to one group, say software programmers, will not speak to the person who is approving the purchase or writing the check.

Consider developing "buyer personas" (fictional characters with personalities and traits matching those of different target groups) to help the authors of content understand how to address the interests of your target consumers.

4. Create different content for three stages in the buying cycle

As you develop content to connect with your target, think "early," "middle," and "late":

  • The Early Stage is the time when prospects are researching the category and learning about how the offerings can meet their needs to either cut costs or sell more. This stage is when thought leadership is particularly important: Though prospects are not shopping for specific vendors, they are certainly forming opinions about who is trustworthy. Therefore, consider aligning your company with a third-party who has instant credibility—such as an objective analyst or consultant— by licensing a third-party report or presentation or commissioning a new whitepaper or e-book.
  •  Your prospects may be a long way off from researching alternative offerings or they may be just a short time away from rapidly learning about potential suppliers. This phase is the Middle Stage, the time when prospects are gathering information about specific, alternative ways they may meet the challenges they have, including ways others like them have solved their problems.
  • Finally, you will need different content for those in the Late Stage, those who are ready to buy (including your current customers, who you hope will be loyal to you) and are evaluating the merits of alternative offerings on their short list.

5. Produce content in many different formats, as your prospects and customers are likely to have different format preferences

Some prefer to read and some may prefer short videos or audio; some may prefer serious, in-depth pieces and some may enjoy short, humorous content. Different formats may also be more suitable to the different stages in the buying cycle.

Consider ways of repurposing content in different formats if that content is well received. For example, if a webinar is well received, consider publishing a summary of ideas in an e-newsletter or as a whitepaper.

6. Use social media to build relationships and directly engage with prospects and customers

When you adopt new social media platforms for distributing content, make sure to incorporate conversation features. You may be attracted to social media as a content distribution platform because of its relatively low cost and word-of-mouth potential, but your prospects and customers who have embraced such new platforms as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc., expect you to engage them in dialogue.

With these new media, you must learn new skills to shift some of your resources from broadcast campaigns to conversation and one-to-one relationships. When you employ these new media in your campaigns, at the very least make efforts to think about enhancing your customer relationship management (CRM).

How to Focus on Sales Impact

7. Establish clear and measurable goals for content marketing, both at the strategic level and at the individual campaign level

Creating compelling content is a means to an end. What do you want to accomplish? What does success look like?

For example, if your goal is brand awareness, you might want to develop content with your name on it, hoping that will be passed around rapidly within your target market ("go viral"). You want your brand to become more widely known and differentiated in the minds of prospects and influencers in your market.

Brand awareness, on the other hand, implies not focusing on building a list of prospects or qualified leads; that would entail relying on other content-marketing tactics. Be very specific about your goals and the approaches you will employ to achieve them.

8. Work to get buy-in from senior management to help generate content and understand how important it is for success in driving demand generation and brand distinction

It is easy for staff to say "it's not my job," but if they receive recognition from senior management for their thought leadership and communications that connect with the target audience, those who are right for it will gladly make time to produce.

Once you start creating success, senior management will in turn learn how valuable it is for the organization. If initially you meet some resistance, then first aim for small victories under the radar. If management is on board from the start, you can be more ambitious about goals, budgets, and resources.

9. Scratch the back of the sales team by producing content that works to make life easier for the reps

Whether your objective of content marketing is brand awareness, lead generation, lead nurturing, or customer retention, such efforts in B2B marketing must ultimately help your sales team generate revenue.

In fact, a big part of what you do in content marketing not only identifies sales-ready leads but also makes reps more productive in their presentations and proposals. Once the sales team becomes a believer in your efforts, the path to building a publishing engine in your organization will have been operationally cleared and financially supported.

10. To build your brand identity, publish content that differentiates your organization and its offerings in the minds of consumers

In most industries, customers have many choices for products and services that can meet their needs in any one category. In short, buyers are in control. Accordingly, it is not enough to say you publish the best or high-quality content. The problem is, quality is not a distinguishing brand attribute; you must publish content that is useful, distinctive, and memorable. Most important, the content must be consistent with what you want consumers to think when they see your brand name.

With that in mind, the creators of your content—including writers and designers—will have the necessary guidance for producing material that meets your goals. To make sure the output is always "on brand" and fresh, regularly audit your content library and refresh the resources there.

11. Shift dollars from "push your offering" content to "educate the target" content

Buyers today conduct research in virtually every product category before buying. They use the Web to find information that makes them better consumers. Ideally, your content will be among the resources they find and consume. Accordingly, invest in creating educational content.

Also, learn the new ways of generating "earned media"—such as organic search marketing, blogs and other social media, and public relations—that attract ("pull") an audience of prospects and customers so you can save money on "purchased media," which buys attention.

Good content will earn media distribution and thereby save you money, but you should be prepared to make content marketing a significant share of your marketing investment. Devote resources and attention to conducting tests to learn how to optimize your combination of content-publishing tactics.

12. Select metrics that will measure progress toward reaching your goals

Each goal you establish should have an appropriate success metric. Some metrics are intermediary indicators—not measures of business results. For example, Web traffic is widely used as a success metric, but it is not a measure of demand generation results. Similarly, email newsletter open and click-through rates are also intermediary measures.

For content marketing to demonstrate ROI, the metrics you use to evaluate strategy and campaigns must be measures related to demand generation. Sometimes, however, it is impossible to determine a clear cause of any particular effect, and often outputs are produced by more than one marketing activity. So understanding what works for you and what doesn't may take time and systematic testing.

In the end, you must be able to determine and credibly report the financial impact of your content-marketing efforts.

Find out more from the full report, "What Works in 2011: Content Marketing." Featuring 100 pages and 51 charts, it reveals how best-in-class companies set themselves ahead of the pack.

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12 B2B Content-Marketing Practices to Ensure Success

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Roy Young is coauthor of Marketing Champions: Practical Strategies for Improving Marketing's Power, Influence and Business Impact.